Is your man a fixer-uppper or turn-key operation?

After calling off a romance because my lover drank too much, I was feeling a little sad and unsure of my decision. I reached out to my friend Aaron who is contending with his own drinking problem. “Maybe he just needs a jolt,” texted Aaron, fresh off his first AA meeting. “That was always my fantasy — that some woman would care enough to help me get sober.”

“No way,” I replied. “I don’t want to be a man’s mommy! If he showed up on the wagon in a few months it would be a different story. But I can’t save someone from himself.”

“You’re right,” Aaron said. “He needs to get on the sobes train. Choo choo!”

“That sounds like AA for preschoolers,” I said. “Are you on the sauce now?”

“Nope! I’m actually sillier when I’m not drinking!”

That conversation confirmed my decision. It also got me thinking about relationships in general, and how they can be an awful lot like real estate (if not a locomotive). You’re either in the market for a turn-key property, one that you can move into and accept any quirks as-is. Or you go for a fixer-upper — someone whose flaws are intolerable, but you are confident you can mold and shape into your vision of their potential.

God knows that when I committed to my ex husband I had the twinkling hopes of a giant ROI. There was so much I loved and adored, and so, so, so much I hoped so, so, so much would change. That with some time and care we wouldn’t fight as much. That he wouldn’t be as angry. That he’d stop being so goddamned needy all the time. That he’d stand up straight for once and eat cereal without slurping at 1,000 decibels. When none of that changed he got resentful and I got disappointed we fought more and he hunched over more and soy milk sprayed all over the dining room and it only got worse. Can’t blame a guy for not changing — few of us ever really do. And you can’t blame a couple for not getting along better when they didn’t get along great in the first place.

Marrying with the hopes of fixing someone was wrong for so many reasons. It was wrong because I was operating as if my relationship existed in some warped future perfect, instead of the present. It was wrong because I never accepted him for who he is. That’s not fair to him — he deserved someone who loved him not just for his good bones and solid foundation, but also for his kooky curbside appeal, creaky floors and drafty windows. When you buy a house in shambles it’s impossible to really settle into the place until serious changes are made. So, too, in relationships. When I married my fixer-upper and my planned reno never happened, I found myself living in a marriage where love could not truly, sustainably bloom– for either one of us.

Dating at this phase of life highlights the turnkey vs fixer-upper equation. When you marry young (I met my ex when I was 25) you marry his potential. A person in his 20s doesn’t have a terribly long track record, and so you are making an educated guess as to what he will be like in 10 and 20 and 50 years.

But by the time a guy hits his 40s (as are most of the men I date), he has a couple decades of adulthood under his belt. Sure, everyone has their ups and downs. Life happens to us all. But few people really make a dramatic turn from their course. How many people struggle professionally their whole lives — then get it together in middle age? Likewise, if a guy reports a lifetime of rotten relationships with women, I’d be delusional to think I‘d be the one to make him sing a different tune. By middle age we’re all mostly what-you-see-is-what-you-get. Which may be daunting. Or it can be liberating — you know now that you can’t make him be more ambitious or tell better jokes at parties or stop drinking. You step back and see the big picture. The whole loveliness of him, ramshackle as it it may be. The whole thing is comfortable and good and sturdy because it is not susceptible to the gusty, destructive winds of unreasonable expectations.

You accept and love him for who he is. Now.

Which is an experience I don’t know I’ve had. Which says something about me. My track record. But if you’re interested, maybe I can change. Just for you. Just be a quiet cereal-eater, please. Decent posture wouldn’t hurt either. Let’s talk.

Emma Johnson is a veteran money writer, noted blogger, bestselling author and an host of the award-winning podcast, Like a Mother with Emma Johnson. A former Associated Press Financial Wire reporter and MSN Money columnist, Emma has written for the New York Times, Wall Street Journal, Forbes, Glamour,, REAL SIMPLE, Parenting, USA Today and others.

The Kickass Single Mom: Be Financially Independent, Discover Your Sexiest Self, and Raise Fabulous, Happy Children (Penguin, 2017), was a #1 bestseller and was featured in hundreds of media, including The New York Times, Wall Street Journal, Fox & Friends, and the New York Post, which named it to its ‘Must Read” list.

Her popular blog, and podcast Like a Mother, explore issues facing professional single moms: business and career, money, sex, relationships and parenting. Emma regularly comments on these topics for outlets such as CNN, Headline News, New York Times, Wall Street Journal, Fox & Friends, CNBC, NPR, TIME, MONEY, O, The Oprah Magazine, Woman’s Day, The Doctors, and many more. She was named Parents magazine’s “Best of the Web,” one of “20 Personal Finance Influencers to Follow on Twitter” by AOL DailyFinance, “Top 15 Personal Finance Podcasts” by U.S. News, and “Most Eligible New Yorkers” by New York Observer.

A popular speaker on gender equality, Emma presented at the United Nations Summit for Gender Equality.

Emma grew up in Sycamore, Ill., and lives in New York City with her children.

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